Some of the lowest-ranking countries on the United Nations' Human Development Index are located in West and Central Africa. The index has exposed the challenge of accurate data keeping in some of the world's poorest countries, as well as these countries' collective pride and competitive spirit. Phuong Tran and Naomi Schwarz report from Dakar and Ende, Mali, on these countries' hopes for their 2007 ranks.
Villagers from Ende and other nearby villages in Mali attend this medical workshop on how to stay in good health. A doctor uses a guidebook to explain everything from how to disinfect water to treating mosquito nets.
But despite efforts like this one, which have helped to decrease the West African country's infant mortality rate, Mali still slipped one rank in the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index, or HDI.
An economist with Mali's Ministry of Planning and Development, Mamadou Maiga, says his country's rank last year of 175 out of 177 is an insult.
He says that the rank matters to his government because it does not accurately reflect the efforts that the Malian government has made in recent years.
Maiga says that the current life expectancy in Mali is actually 56 years and not 48, as the 2006 report listed, and that life has gotten better in Mali.
Resident Ali Ban Guindo agrees. He is a tour guide in Dogon, one of Mali's most visited areas near the Burkina Faso border.
Guindo says that things have been getting a lot better in the past few years and that people seem to make more money now. He says that, before, everyone walked and, now, with cheaper imports, most people have cars. He says that, without a car, it is impossible to get a girlfriend.
Economist Maiga says that Mali's HDI rank does not capture these changes.
"The people who write this report have not made an effort to really come to the countries they rank, to gather official statistics that are current, to measure the progress that has been made," he said.
One of the report's statisticians, Papa Seck, says that its authors do not personally produce any of the report data. The UNDP collects its information from other U.N. agencies and from the World Bank.
"If the data is not reported to the relevant agencies, then we cannot use it because we do not even have access to national data," noted Seck. "Some countries just cannot afford data collection. Those are more structural problems also linked to the level of development."
Even among these poorer countries that share similar development challenges, there is a sense of competition. Economist Maiga explains.
"If you look at the countries that are ranked higher than Mali, those are countries that have been at war for 10 years or more," added Maigo. "It is not possible that they can be ranked ahead of Mali which has known peace, tranquility and has been in the process of making efforts in developing all its sectors."
UNDP statistician Seck cautions against these types of comparisons.
"We are not trying to pit countries against one another. Some do not use the HDI as a tool for progress, as an indicator," commented Seck. "They use it for comparison purposes. It brings in some sort of competition across countries, according to rank and not to progress."
Niger is ranked last on the 2006 index. Its officials have also disputed its rank for similar reasons as Mali.
Its officials pointed to democratic elections and polio eradication as two major improvements, which did not advance the country in the rankings. Seck agrees that the index has its limits.
"There are things that are not captured. For instance, democracy, cultural liberty. HDI cannot measure everything," he said.
Seck reminds officials displeased with their rank of the index's original goal.
"Numbers are not everything. Numbers will just give you a sense, but it is what you do with the numbers that will be important at the end of the day," he concluded.
The United Nations Development Program created this index in 1990 as a way to get around the shortcomings of using income as the only measure of quality of life. The index introduced life expectancy and access to knowledge as other criteria to capture residents' quality of life.
The United Nations and development agencies fund programs to help some of the lowest-ranking countries build up their data keeping systems. Seck says that this is still a work in progress.